Oyster gardening lessons offered

Published 7:40 pm Monday, May 29, 2017

Suffolk residents can help restore regional waterways by learning to raise their own oysters this June.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation will hold seminars on oyster gardening this June throughout Hampton Roads. Volunteers will raise small oysters in provided cages and watch them grow into adults over the course of a year with little upkeep.

“Oysters are one step above a pet rock,” said Heather North, CBF Virginia Oyster Restoration Specialist. “Everything they need is out there in the water. As long as that cage is in the water, they have everything they need.”

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Newcomers will come to a seminar and learn how to maintain oysters in the small cages provided by CBF. Each gardener will receive two cages, a crab pot line and zip ties. Donations aren’t mandatory, but $25 is strongly encouraged to offset the cost of the oysters.

Each cage will have more than 400 oyster spats, or baby oysters. These infants are grown on recycled oyster shells that are collected through a statewide program with volunteer restaurants.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Oyster Restoration Specialist Heather North pauses by the water with an oyster cage. (Submitted Photo)

“We collect them, clean them up and set them up with the baby oysters,” North said.

The cages will be suspended in water for the duration of the oysters’ development. Homeowners can attach the cages on their docks, fishermen can place them in the water at their marinas and others may find a suitable location with help from CBF.

“If there’s somebody that doesn’t live on the water, we can try and find a public location for them to garden,” North said.

There are a few concerns when maintaining an oyster cage over the course of a year. The wire mesh should be kept clean to allow food and oxygen to reach the oysters inside. Young blue crabs may get inside the cage and should be removed before they grow too big to start eating the oysters.

After a year, the oysters should mature and be ready to be taken back to the CBF. The organization will plant the grown oysters in sanctuary reefs and give the gardener a new batch of young oysters in return.

By the time gardeners turn in their adult oysters, they will likely have spawned enough oysters to spread throughout each gardener’s waters.

“There’s no guarantee that’s where they came from, but it’s pretty convincing that the wild oysters are the result of the spawning of their oyster garden oysters,” North said. “It definitely helps kick start that population.”

Each oyster can filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water per day. The oyster gardens allow this effect to reach waterways that the CBF is unable to reach with its larger restoration efforts.

They also create habitats.

“That cage is going to serve as its own little ecosystem,” North said. “Some people say they’ve found a seahorse, eels, all kinds of fun things. You never know what’s going to be in there.”

She emphasized how important volunteers are for both oysters and clean water in Virginia.

“We can’t do this alone,” she said. “We need everyone’s support to show that not only oysters are important, but clean water is important. Oysters are one of our natural ways to get there.”

CBF will hold seminars in Newport News on June 22 at 6 p.m. at the Mariners’ Museum, and in Hampton on June 27 at 6 p.m. at the Hampton Yacht Club.

There will also be seminars in Virginia Beach on June 10 at 9 a.m. at the Brock Environmental Center and in Norfolk on June 20 at 6 p.m. at the Norfolk Yacht & Country Club.

Participants can go online at cbf.org/vaoystergardening or call 809-2939.